Political Coverage: Room for Improvement

Last week on Larry King Live political pundit Ben Stein was rehashing the election results, and he wistfully mentioned that he would miss Christine O’Donnell, the unsuccessful candidate for the senatorial seat in Delaware, as she was so entertaining to have around.

If this were just a humorous aside, it would be one thing, but unfortunately with the manner in which the media has been doling out coverage, it appears that the entertainment factor is huge when it comes to selecting the people and subjects that are covered. Earlier that day (November 4), James Carville appeared on MSNBC and noted that it would be sad not to have Sharon Angle (Tea Party candidate for Harry Reid’s Senate seat in Nevada) and Christine O’Donnell around anymore, but he expressed pleasure that Sarah Palin and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann weren’t going anywhere and would still be available to provide fodder for the news media.

For me, these two men’s comments brought home a truth: The elections are rarely about the issues partly because in general, the media is perfectly happy to go for the easy interviews with people who are entertaining but know very little about the national issues. (We’ll ignore the fact that all these politicians whom the men have singled out for ridicule are women.) As long as the media stays focused on the “entertaining” personalities, we are doomed to continue with this “anything-but-real-news” cycle.

O’Donnell Worthy of National Coverage?
Remember in mid-September when Christine O’Donnell first won the Republican nomination for the Senate? She was immediately booked for interviews on several national news programs including CBS’ Face the Nation. Then the press got wind of some of her more amazing assertions made on cable TV (human brains inserted into mice? Dating those interested in witchcraft?), and she soon backed out of the national commitments noting that she needed to remain focused on Delaware voters. (Here, O’Donnell demonstrated great wisdom.)

Why were national programs inviting her anyway? She was a candidate who needed to become known to Delaware voters, but why did the rest of us need to become familiar with her? She had no political experience and had demonstrated very little grasp of national issues. Perhaps it is the media version of the schoolyard taunt: “I’m smarter than you are!” To her credit, O’Donnell has conducted herself well and deserves praise for her management of the media; it’s just unfortunate that she has so little to say.

The economy is still struggling, the war in Afghanistan continues with American soldiers risking their lives daily, and health care reform still waits to be adequately explained. We face global warming, recovery from an oil spill in the Gulf, and the highly controversial possibility of hydrofracking for energy in upstate New York brought to us by Halliburton, the company who produced the inferior cement used by BP for the well that blew and caused the gulf oil disaster.

With these issues and many others before us, why did national news shows want to give exposure to a newly nominated candidate for the Senate? Ben Stein would like to have O’Donnell stick around, and James Carville things it’s entertaining to listen to Sharon Angle who is the only candidate we know of who tried to ingratiate herself in front of a group of Hispanics by assuring them that they actually “looked a little bit Asian” to her.

The Media Wields Enormous Influence
Sarah Palin has had an outsized influence on our political future not because so many people are gripped by what she says. She wields influence because news departments are happy to assign cameras to follow her around. Yes, she’s attractive and often surprises us with what she says, but does that make her newsworthy?

And if the media is not paying attention to her they are perfectly happy to return at any moment to focus on Levi and Bristol…two young people who command a national platform because they had unprotected sex before marriage (not to mention before graduating from high school).

If the press paid less attention to entertaining people like Sarah, her influence would fade. Without television coverage, she would have only her own crowd listening to her. Instead we have the media trumpeting the “Palin Effect” on the election, totally ignoring that she couldn’t even deliver a win with her candidate in her home state.

How lovely that people like Ben Stein and James Carville can draw paychecks to be on air and talk about issues that “amuse” them, but this is our country we are talking about. There are very real subjects the media could spend their time addressing.

I know the news media is a business; I know that ratings and viewers are important, but what if the media tried to educate instead of pander to the base?

The Press Could Do What They Do Best
In addition to their news-gathering responsibilities, journalists are vitally important to our society for two primary reasons: One is their ability to explain complex issues clearly; the other reason is because journalists are good at shining light in the dark recesses of business, society, and government. (Journalism schools have actually been adding financial literacy classes to their curriculum, realizing that if more reporters had understood what was happening prior to the financial meltdown, perhaps more of them could have raised a red flag on what was happening.)

The Obama administration has accomplished a great deal in the last two years, but they have explained virtually none of it. Our government is huge, and you would think they could find someone to prepare a brochure called something catchy like, “Explaining the Coming Health Care Changes;” and it could have been mailed to every family in the country. That didn’t happen, so where is the press? Couldn’t they fill the void and explain the reform provisions to the public?

So I challenge Ben Stein and James Carville and all other reporters who have enjoyed “toying” with certain candidates: Quit doing the “easy” stories. Take on something difficult, something important, and do what you do best…explain the issues so that we have a better-informed electorate. We live in an increasingly complex society and none of us have time to become experts at many things that affect us.

I also recommend reading Bob Herbert’s Op-Ed piece “Tone Deaf in D.C.”, if you missed it last week. He is among those who have taken the election results seriously. Herbert writes that he hopes for greater leadership at the state level and more citizen participation because he points out, the D.C. politicians aren’t prepared to do the job ahead of them.

In any case, all of us–press and public–need to get behind whatever significant cause interests us and become educated. Our country is worth it.

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